I’m pleased to have Regan Burke back with us as a guest blogger today. A civil rights activist, Regan is a regular at the memoir-writing class I lead here in Printer’s Row and has taken an interest in writing poetry now, too. Read on and you’ll find out why.
by Regan Burke
Late last month I was one of twelve adults over age 50 from Skyline Village who gathered with 25 Lookingglass Young Ensemble artists in the basement of the Driehaus Museum for a storytelling workshop with poet/activist/teacher Kevin Coval.
Some of us Skyline Villagers arrived at the 19th-century-Gilded-Age mansion on Chicago’s North Side early enough to poke around its lavish rooms before the workshop started. The 4th-through-12th-graders arrived all at once and were far more captivated with Kevin Coval than with the mansion’s treasures.
Kevin Coval has been well-known among young Chicagoans for years –he’s a co-founder of Young Chicago Authors and Artistic Director of Louder Than A Bomb, the country’s largest and oldest annual hip-hop poetry festival. Last spring, the release of Kevin’s book A People’s History of Chicago put him on the national map as well, especially after he appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
Kevin opened the workshop with an introduction of 19-year-old Sammy Ortega, who recited the poem he performed for his first place finish in the 2017 Louder Than A Bomb contest. Sammy’s poem about his experience in a Chicago military high school left us with jaw-dropping admiration for its truth-telling about life in the city. Kevin read one of his own poems from A People’s History of Chicago, too. The poems they both read told stories using objects in everyday life, and that’s exactly what we were about to do in our workshop. Kevin and Sammy asked us to write our favorite:
- day of the week
- nostalgic item
Then Kevin asked us to come up with a favorite place. Who is in that place? What conversations take place there?
Kevin instructed us to start writing a story based on any one word or phrase in our lists. “Don’t worry about beginnings or endings, punctuation, grammar, or rhyming – just write.”
The basement abruptly came to a halt. Mechanical systems hushed. Museum staffers stopped talking. Traffic noise ceased. Writers dove into their papers, heads down, pens charging down their pages. Some writers finished fast, put their pens down and silently waited for the rest.
Some, like me, furiously wrote until the end (and beyond). I tried to capture every last morsel of thought on that paper—as if creativity were about to slip through my fingers and walk out the door. No one asked for help or sighed in exasperation—a tribute not only to Kevin’s generous teaching but to his belief in us, all of us, as storytellers.
After 15 minutes we broke into groups of three to collaborate on our poems. Then Kevin gathered us back together to recite our works of art. The room exploded with words. Revealing stories about baking with grandmothers, cruising down Lake Shore Drive, mourning dead cats, eating bagels. We elders were surprised to feel a sense of connection to the teenagers’ thoughts of feeling marginalized, voiceless, unnoticed. In a short two hours time we turned those feelings into theater – laughs and drama and tears and joy, all in the basement workroom of an old mansion on a Monday night at the beginning of winter in our hometown.
The stories we created will be performed at Lookingglass Theater, 821 North Michigan Avenue on Monday, December 11at 6:30 pm. It’s free and open to the public. Join us! I guarantee you’ll be charmed. If not, see me afterwards at the (free) refreshment table and I’ll refund your money! Space is limited, so please RSVP by email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 773.477.9257 (x193).